Special Political and Decolonization Committee, (Fourth Committee), United Nations, New York

October 9-10, 2007

A Country Should Be Born

By Gilonne d’Origny *

Today, the UN General Assembly’s Fourth Committee on Decolonization is meeting to discuss the fate of the world’s last colonies.
Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony.  Spain, as the Administering Authority, member of the European Union, must reassert its authority and put an end to occupation and one of the vilest and grossest violations of human rights and humanitarian law today, namely, Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara and persecution of the Sahrawi people.

Do you remember?
In 1975, Morocco invaded Western Sahara in flagrant violation of the International Court of Justice Opinion that denied Morocco’s territorial claims and reasserted the Sahrawi fundamental right to self-determination.   Morocco still occupies Western Sahara at great financial, human, and image costs in a crime for which the authorities in charge could be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court. 

Do you remember?
The armed conflict lasted until 1991.  Between 1982 and 1989, Morocco, with Israeli, French, and American support built a wall reinforced with razor wire and landmines across 1,800 km from the southwestern point to the northeastern point of Western Sahara, with Morocco to the West and to the East, the Polisario, the Sahrawi popular front for liberation. 
Occupiers and colonizers are, by definition, not welcome, and force their presence.  It is reported that the Moroccan Government, as a matter of policy, tortures and “disappears” opposition to the occupation.  In the rare cases when they reappear, they bear the scars of dreadful physical and mental torture.  151 Sahrawi prisoners of war are still unaccounted for.  The Polisario has returned ALL Moroccan prisoners of war.
Perhaps Morocco should finally give human rights organizations free access to the Occupied Territory.
After all, only fools don’t change their minds. 

Do you remember?
Morocco changed its mind regarding the vote for self-determination.  From the 1991 cease-fire until the 2003 Baker Plan, Morocco had believed it could inflate the census with Moroccans whom the Identification Commission would certify as genuine Sahrawi.  This strategy failed and Morocco would still lose the vote, so Morocco refused any solution that involved Sahrawi independence.  The most Morocco would agree to would be Sahrawi autonomy under Moroccan rule. 
However, nothing short of a vote for self-determination in which the Sahrawi listed by the Identification Commission will satisfy the process of self-determination.  The Sahrawi are to choose between several options of statehood, one, indeed, could be autonomy under Moroccan administration.  Why not?  But independence must be an option.
To this end, Spain must behave like a state where the rule of law and fundamental human rights are respected.  It must demand that Morocco pull out of this land now legally under Spanish authority and hold this referendum.
The self-righteous European Union must stop any commerce with Morocco that takes place on the territory and in the waters of Western Sahara.  The fishing agreement, if anything, must be struck with Spain in trust for the State that the legitimate Sahrawi eventually choose to govern their people and protect their territory.
Why did European parliamentarians accept to strike this fishing agreement with Morocco and not Spain?  Oil companies such as Shell, must also pull out or strike their agreements with Spain, not Morocco.
Why should invasion, an illegal use of force, be rewarded by legitimizing the criminal act? 
Some argue Western Sahara should not be independent because the Sahrawi lack the experience and the resources to be self-reliant.
Remember, this completely ignores the fundamental principle of self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter and the basic rules of democracy.  It ignores the disgusting profile of colonialism and occupation.
Western Sahara has many natural resources, as the fishing agreement and oil deals prove. 
And even if Western Sahara were barren, suggesting lack of resources should deny freedom and independence is, at best, absurd.  As Thomas Friedman explains in The World Is Flat, natural resources can be a country’s curse.  Morocco has no oil but does well by plundering Western Sahara’s resources and with its barely contained export of hashish to the European Union. 
Remember Dubai, Switzerland, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong – all with few natural resources but immensely resourceful.

Do you remember?
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, did anybody suggest autonomy to the Kuwaitis under Iraqi rule?  How about France or Poland, autonomy under Nazi German rule?   Bosnians recently chose independence. 
Above all, self-determination is the birth pang of a country about to be born.  It is democracy.  A first breath of fresh air.  A first taste of freedom.  A whiff of hope.  A birth right.  A right peaceful civil societies cherish.
Do you remember the most recent example set by East Timor?  It suffered a parallel tragic history and eventually saw an end to the brutal Indonesian occupation.
East Timor was a Portuguese non-self-governing territory, like Western Sahara is a Spanish non-self-governing territory.  The indigenous population, the Timorese, like the Sahrawi, were entitled to determine the “self” of their territory. 
Indonesia invaded in 1975 and occupied the territory with repressive brutal force.  Portugal did not budge.  Indonesia struck commercial deals on Timorese territory, most famously, the Timor Gap Treaty with Australia, to exploit off-shore oil fields between Timor and Australia.  Portugal lost out on lucrative deals, just like Spain is losing out on the fishing and oil deals on Sahrawi territory – Spain does get from Morocco, however, illegal immigrants, illegal drugs, and, reportedly, terrorists.
And a last word in response to Morocco’s claims that an independent Western Sahara will become a breeding ground for terrorists: the Sahrawi and the Polisario have never engaged in terrorist acts against people.  Never.  There is no Sahrawi terrorist or fundamentalist movement.  So much cannot be said of Morocco.

Do you remember?
In 1999, thanks in part to this Fourth Committee, Indonesia and Portugal finally held the vote for self-determination and the Timorese chose independence for East Timor, becoming the first new sovereign state of the 21st century.  Would anybody today suggest that the East Timorese people should not have had a right, like every other human being, to be free from colonization and occupation?
It is about time Western Sahara, Africa’s last colony, be liberated and decolonized. 
This means that Moroccan occupation must end. 
This means that the Sahrawi must vote in the long-awaited referendum for self-determination, in which they will have a choice between independence and autonomy or integration within Spain or Morocco. 
This means that, immediately, Morocco must allow human rights organizations to report on the situation in the Occupied zone. 
This means that those who currently support Morocco, such as France, the European Union, and Spain, should reconsider their alliances and decisions.  Human rights must prevail over greed.

Do you remember when your countries, the countries of some of the people in this room, here today, were colonized?  Were occupied?  Do you remember? 
This is a body whose mission is to move people toward justice and independence, even when that road is blocked.
From Namibia to Timor, we have seen what it takes to help a people move from occupation, to freedom.  We have heard, over and over, the false arguments, the tortured logic, that says that people must remain under occupation.
That logic is hollow.  Those arguments are duplicitous.  I look around this room and see representatives of countries, many of you, perhaps all of you, whose countries have walked that road to freedom and escaped colonialism or occupation.
Are our memories so short?  Does this road belong to just a few?  Or does it belong to all humans upon this Earth?

*  Gilonne d’Origny has an LLM in public international law and has written about international criminal law in Western Sahara.  The views in this piece are her own.